Your horse’s mental state affects his entire body, making a holistic perspective all the more important when it comes to feeding
Ah, the stress-free life. Free to roam, explore, eat, socialize with friends, lie down to take a nap. Such a life doesn’t exist for many horses -- it’s no wonder they’re stressed. The more you treat your horse like a horse living in the wild, the calmer and more cooperative he will be.
You can keep your horse at his healthiest if:
• he’s allowed to be turned out 24 hours a day along with a shelter for protection against nasty weather
• grass hay and/or pasture (forage) are available at all times
• concentrated meals are small in size
• vitamins and minerals are supplemented to hay-only diets
• clean water and salt are easily accessible
Most of your horse’s diet should come from forage. If a horse has all the forage he wants, his instincts will kick in and he will self-regulate his intake, eating only what his body needs to maintain condition. Studies show this totals 1.5% to 3.0% of his body weight.
HORSES NEED FORAGE, FREE-CHOICE
In their natural setting, horses graze virtually all day. It is very important that a horse’s digestive system have forage in it to avoid digestive problems.
Horses’ stomachs, unlike our own, produce acid continually. Therefore, an empty stomach will be exposed to excess acid. This can produce ulcers, as well as diarrhea, behavioral problems, and even colic. Chewing is necessary to produce saliva, which acts as a natural antacid, so if a horse has no hay or pasture, he will chew on whatever he can to produce saliva: fences, trees, even his own manure. This level of stress causes the secretion of cortisol, a stress-related hormone. Ironically, cortisol leads to insulin resistance, which causes fat storage and may lead to laminitis. It seems contradictory, but an overweight horse who is restricted from forage will stay overweight.
The horse’s digestive tract is made of muscles that need to be exercised. A constant supply of forage keeps the intestinal tract moving and prevents colic. A horse’s cecum contains billions of microbes that produce digestive enzymes capable of digesting forage. The acid from an empty stomach can destroy them, leading to inefficient digestion, colic, and even laminitis from endotoxin production.
GIVE YOUR HORSE A CHANCE TO SELF-REGULATE
When fed a small amount of hay, horses will likely eat it very quickly and will be anxious for more. But if given all they want, they will overeat for a few days and then, once they see that they can walk away and the hay will still be there when they return, they will calm down and eat only what they need to maintain health. If your horse is stalled at night, the only way to know whether he has enough hay for this self-regulation to take place is for some hay to be left over in the morning.
Feeding more hay is not the solution. If you simply feed more, your horses will eat more. The key is to feed enough so they never run out. Then, and only then, will instincts take over and, in the vast majority of horses, they will self-regulate their intake.
IMPACT ON BEHAVIOR
Examples of behaviors that can be corrected through proper feeding include:
Hot horses. You should make every attempt to determine the cause of your horse’s distress. Once stressors are removed, diet can make an enormous difference in the nervous horse’s behavior.
• Avoid starch and sugar. These cause a pronounced variation in blood sugar levels.
• Add magnesium. This mineral softens tense, tight muscles and protects the nervous system.
• Increase B vitamins. Thiamin (vitamin B1) has the ability to calm an edgy horse. But it works better with the other seven B vitamins.
• Do not avoid alfalfa. Alfalfa is as low in sugar as grass hay. As a legume, it creates a high quality protein. If your horse enjoys alfalfa, limit it to no more than 30% of the total hay ration to prevent enteroliths (intestinal stones).
Cribbing. Early weaning can cause this behavior, as can confinement as an adult. While there’s nothing you can do to change the past, you can take measures to reduce factors that contribute to cribbing. Cribbing collars do not relieve the urge, causing more stress for your horse.
• Turnout as much as possible.
• Free choice grass hay. You will be amazed at what this one simple change will do for your horse’s demeanor.
• Do not isolate your horse. Non-cribbers will not “catch” the cribbing habit by seeing another horse do it.
• Consider ulcers. The pain and discomfort of ulcers can lead to cribbing.
Eating manure. It is very common, and even important, for a foal to exhibit this behavior. Adult horses who eat manure, however, have other things going on, such as:
• the hindgut microbes may be diminished due to antibiotics, stress, or too much starch
• discomfort from an empty stomach
• presence of an ulcer
• nutrient deficiencies from a poor diet
• salt is in short supply
A STRESSED HORSE IS NOT CENTERED
Time and time again, I see horses behave like their natural selves when allowed to graze freely, socialize with friends, and romp around. Some folks have expressed concern that their horses are more spirited now that they are no longer stalled and have free access to forage. They are surprised by the new horse that has emerged. Let this be an indication instead, that your horse is finally able to show his true, healthy personality. Express joy on his behalf.
Juliet M. Getty, PhD, a “pioneer in free choice forage feeding,” offers private consultations and designs customized feeding plans to promote horses' health, reverse illness, and optimize performance. A former university professor and recipient of several teaching awards, she is a popular speaker, has written for publications throughout the world, and is author of the new book Feed Your Horse Like a Horse . www.gettyequinenutrition.com